But advocates say the ruling will resonate more widely, and implicates a subset of cases where defendants had bad lawyers both at their trials and in post-conviction appeals.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said a federal law that sought to streamline criminal appeals does not allow a federal court to conduct hearings or consider evidence beyond the state-court record based on ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel.
In our dual-sovereign system, federal courts must afford unwavering respect to the centrality of the trial of a criminal case in state court, wrote Thomas, referring to a court precedent. He added that intervention by federal courts is an affront to the State and its citizens who returned a verdict of guilt after considering the evidence before them. Federal courts, years later, lack the competence and authority to relitigate a States criminal case.
He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the rest of the courts most consistently conservative justices: Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a stinging rebuttal, calling Thomass opinion perverse and illogical, and said that it reduced to rubble previous Supreme Court findings that the constitutional right to effective counsel is a bedrock principle in an adversary system of criminal justice.
With Mondays ruling, The Court hamstrings the federal authority to safeguard the right, Sotomayor wrote. The Courts decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.
She was joined by the two other justices on the left, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The cases concerned two Arizona men who were convicted of brutal murders.
David Ramirez was convicted of fatally stabbing his girlfriend, Mary Ann Gortarez, and her 15-year-old daughter, Candie, in 1989. Police also found physical evidence that Ramirez had raped Candie, Thomas wrote. Ramirez claimed his lawyers in state proceedings failed to present evidence of a horrific childhood that might have led to a sentence of life imprisonment instead of death.
Barry Lee Jones was convicted of sexual assault, three counts of child abuse and felony murder after the 1994 death of his girlfriends 4-year-old daughter, Rachel Gray. Jones was convicted of beating the child to death. But his lawyer at the Supreme Court said previous lawyers had failed to present medical evidence that could have shown that the child sustained her injuries when she was not in Joness care. And his postconviction lawyer failed to develop a showing of his trial lawyers shortcoming, Jones claimed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with both men, and Arizona brought the cases to the Supreme Court.
Innocence Project Executive Director Christina Swarns wrote in an op-ed column in the New York Times that Jones lost the lawyer lottery twice. Her organization said the ability of federal courts to conduct evidentiary hearings into such claims was crucial.
Since 1989, almost 3,000 people have been wrongfully convicted of crimes in the United States, Swarns wrote. And since 1973, 186 people condemned to death have been exonerated. Bad lawyering including poor preparation, inadequate investigation and intrinsic bias was a leading cause.
But Thomas said the Supreme Court has found that federal review of state convictions is an extreme remedy reserved for the most extraordinary cases. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 imposes strict limits on federal courts, he wrote.
Serial relitigation of final convictions undermines the finality that is essential to both the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law, Thomas wrote, quoting a previous Supreme Court case.
Sotomayor responded that it made no sense to limit federal review of ineffective-counsel claims to issues raised in the state court record.
Ineffective-assistance claims frequently turn on errors of omission: evidence that was not obtained, witnesses that were not contacted, experts who were not retained, or investigative leads that were not pursued, she wrote. Demonstrating that counsel failed to take each of these measures by definition requires evidence beyond the trial record.
She said the court missed the larger point of its ruling. To put it bluntly: Two men whose trial attorneys did not provide even the bare minimum level of representation required by the Constitution may be executed because forces outside of their control prevented them from vindicating their constitutional right to counsel, she wrote.
Washington lawyer Robert Loeb, who argued the case for Ramirez and Jones at the Supreme Court, said in a statement that the decision means that a federal court can have evidence that someone, like Barry Jones, did not commit the crime supporting the death sentence, but that the court then is helpless to offer any relief.
He said Congress should immediately fix the problem the Court has created today.
But organizations that support the death penalty said Congress already has acted.
In 1996, Congress cracked down on the misuse of habeas corpus to second-guess judgments that have already been fully and fairly decided in state courts, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation legal director Kent Scheidegger said in a statement. Todays decision affirms that federal courts cannot make up their own exceptions to evade that law.
The cases are Shinn v. Ramirez and Shinn v. Jones.